This is the final posting in my series on relationship skills for people who experienced abuse or trauma in their lives. The table of contents for the series can be found here: Relationship Skills for Survivors of Abuse and Trauma
One night, many years ago, David (my late husband) and I were fighting about something. I don’t even remember what it was. I can still see the living room, and easily remember how full of rage and frustration I felt.
He carefully told me that he couldn’t talk about this subject right now, and walked away from me. Well, that did it! I followed him around the house harping on him. I told him plainly how unfair it was that he would be the person to decide what and when we talked about things.
Sounds reasonable, right?
I was so angry. This reminded me of all the unbalanced relationships I had experienced in my life. And if we only look at this from my point of view, well, I’d be RIGHT.
He may have told me several times how unable to dialogue he was. I didn’t hear him. In my rageful state, I didn’t care to hear him. Finally, he stopped, turned around and shook me.
You might be fooled into thinking that this is an article about his abusive behavior. It is not. It is about my abusive behavior.
How can this be? After all, he is the one who shook me!
In the wonderful world of our fantasies, all people would have grown up loved and nourished, in safety and without abuse. At the very least, our imagination leads us to believe that everyone but us grew up without these problems. That, of course, is not the case.
David was like me. He was severely abused in childhood. Also, he was the man I loved. He deserved the same care and concern I expected for myself.
I watched this repeatedly in relationship coaching sessions with clients. They’d be thoughtful, considerate, giving and emotionally generous with strangers, co-workers, bosses and others.
Then they would come home and completely let go of their self control. Indulge in thoughtless actions. Ignore their partner. Disregard their partner’s needs entirely. Make plans without consulting the one they loved. Speak rudely to them.
It was as if they believed they were supposed to be able to completely let go around their partner. It’s not true.
It is difficult to balance an article like this with the reality of authentic abusive relationships. What makes my story and my marriage to David NOT an abusive relationship? I think the difference may come from what happened next.
At the time, I was so upset. Sure that I had married an abusive man; I began to think rapidly of where I could go. I heard echoes of all the books and talks I had heard on the topic of abuse in a family. Instead, I went into the other room and cried.
Later, I do not remember how much later, we talked about this. He heard me out, all my upset and listened carefully to what I had to say. And here is what he told me.
“Laura, I walked away from you because I felt violent,” David said. (Remember I followed him, battering him with my words and making sure he heard what I had to say.)
Then he continued with a deeper understanding of how his violent childhood and early childhood living had affected him.
He was struggling, he told me, to live a normal life with me. But he didn’t have many skills. Where he grew up, all arguments were solved by the biggest, baddest, and strongest individual. All confrontations were solved with violence.
Then he explained that when he said, “I can’t talk about this right now,” that is exactly what he meant.
He didn’t mean what I heard which was, “I hold all the control, and decide when you get to talk.”
He didn’t mean, “I don’t care about your feelings. I’ll talk to you in my own good time.”
Or any of the other stories I made up in my head in my rage.
Then he asked me to never, ever push him past his point of self-control like that. And he made a commitment to let me know when he was again able to dialogue. Then we would talk about the issues.
I did. He did. And we did. For the rest of our marriage, that is how we solved problems. Sometimes, it was me who needed time to get clarity. Other times, it was David. Over the years, the time it took us to calm down, think clearly and be able to talk shortened radically.
I thought deeply about what he told me. I felt ashamed that in my selfish need to talk right now, I had violated him. I had considered my needs, wants and wishes above his. And I had totally forgotten that he was as hurt inside as I was.
I had never, ever thought of myself as abusive. After all, I am a NICE person! I am the victim, the fragile one. However, the reaction I often had against my sense of self as victim led me to behave abusively. This does not excuse David from his bad behavior. Not one bit.
It is simply that if we were ever going to be able to live together successfully, we both would have to grow and change.
I was terribly sorry I had injured him. When I looked at it, I had injured him every bit as badly with my thoughtlessness as he had when he shook me. We forgave each other. And it was equal. This is the way loving people treat each other.
Actions like mine are common in people who were abused or traumatized. Instead, it is critically important for you to make the one you love the most precious person in your life. They deserve your care and concern, good manners, thoughtful actions and love.
We forget that the other person is as real as we are. We know we hurt, we are sure they don’t. It is almost as if they don’t exist. In our need to stop our upset, we treat the one we love as if they were cardboard cutouts. Our behavior is subtle, and so it is not obvious to us that we are part of the problem.
Before you get completely irate with me, this does not mean that you become phony, or a doormat. It simply means that if you love someone, you treat them like you do. You treat the person you love like they are someone you love. Not like you’d treat strangers.
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